In 2017, a barn fire struck Hi-Grade Egg Producers in North Manchester, Indiana. At least four poultry barns burned down, killing more than 1 million chickens in a matter of hours. The chickens, trapped in confinement sheds, had no way to escape the smoke and flames. In a media interview, Hi-Grade’s president said that he expected the company’s operations to be back at full capacity within five months, but there was no mention of the suffering the chickens endured or of plans to increase fire protection in Hi-Grade’s barns.
Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Barn fires kill hundreds of thousands of farm animals every year, and these tragedies are almost always met with an apathetic shrug by an agriculture industry insulated by insurance. Nor do these animals find any concern for their suffering in US law: Currently, there are no federal statutes or regulations designed to protect farm animals from barn fires in the United States. Farm animals raised for food or fiber (e.g., wool, leather) are not covered under the Animal Welfare Act and receive less protection than other species of confined animals, such as those living in laboratories or zoos. Because industrial farms house such a massive number of animals, emergency planning and fire protection are critical if such horrific loss of life is to be prevented.
This past October, AWI released a first-of-its-kind report: Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat to Farm Animals. AWI collected five years’ worth of data from media reports on barn fires and analyzed it to determine the scale of farm animal deaths from barn fires, why they occur, and most importantly, what can be done to prevent them. We talked to fire protection experts, and we crafted recommendations that farmers, the agriculture industry, governments, insurance companies, and third-party certification programs can implement to reduce the risk of barn fires.
From 2013 to 2017, at least 2,763,924 farm animals died in the United States as a result of 326 barn fires. But this is just the total reported via media outlets. The actual number of deaths is likely much higher. While barn fires are monitored at the local, state, and federal levels, farming operations are not required to report farm animal fatalities from barn fires, meaning that many farm animal deaths are simply unaccounted for.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a nonprofit organization that creates standards for fire protection that state or local governments may choose to adopt. The standards are not binding unless adopted, but serve as a guide for the safest and most advanced fire protection practices. One of the standards, NFPA 150, was created to address fire and life safety in animal housing facilities. It covers animals used in agriculture, although not all types of farm animals are included; it applies only to farm animals housed indoors for commercial purposes and excludes animals living on feedlots and pastures and those raised in residential-type settings.
Though AWI believes these latter animals should not be excluded, implementing NFPA 150 could still spare thousands of animals from suffering. For example, NFPA 150 requires detection systems in certain areas of industrial barns, something most such barns currently do not have. Additionally, it requires emergency management training for employees and inclusion of a hazard assessment in emergency management plans. Since 2014, AWI has helped influence NFPA 150 by sending in comments and suggestions. For the last year, we’ve also been a member of the committee responsible for drafting NFPA 150, serving as the only animal protection voice.
Considering the scattered entities that have a hand in regulating, monitoring, and reporting barn fires, and the challenges associated with doing so, it is no surprise that farm animal fatalities have flown under the radar and have not been prioritized. However, the data suggests that with a few safety measures, barns could be made much safer for farm animals.
While compiling Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat to Farm Animals, AWI also found a striking imbalance regarding the species killed by barn fires. Seventeen species of farm animals were reported to have died in barn fires from 2013 to 2017. Chickens, however, represented 95 percent of the deaths. Pigs accounted for 2.5 percent and cows accounted for less than 1 percent. This discrepancy is understandable, given that far more chickens are raised than any other farm animal—with thousands upon thousands commonly crowded into massive sheds. Larger animals on factory farms may have little or no space to move around, but fewer can be packed into any one facility and fewer, therefore, will die in a fire. During the period surveyed, there were several instances in which 100,000 to 500,000 chickens were killed in a single fire, whereas the largest number of cows killed in one fire was 500 and the largest number of pigs was 11,000.
Barn fires that killed farm animals were reported in 38 states from 2013 to 2017. While it might be expected that the states with the most animal agriculture would have the highest number of fires, that is not generally the case. North Carolina, for instance, which has the second largest pork industry, fourth largest broiler chicken industry, and second largest turkey industry, averaged only 1.4 fatal fires a year. Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, which together account for almost a third of the total US broiler chicken production, did not have a single reported barn fire that caused animal fatalities over the five-year span. Instead, a more prominent factor appears to be that colder states experience more barn fires, regardless of whether they are top producers. For example, Michigan, which is not one of the top-five producing states for any animal agriculture industry, had the third-highest number of barn fires over that same period, averaging 5.6 a year. Similar statistics are observed for other midwestern and northeastern states, while warmer southern states with significant animal agriculture industries consistently have few or no fatal barn fires.
Out of the 326 total barn fires that caused farm animal fatalities, the cause or likely cause was reported in 106 cases. (In many instances, the destruction was too severe to determine the cause.) In others, the cause was still undetermined or under investigation at the time of press, and an update was never provided. In cases where the cause was known, electrical heating devices and other electrical malfunctions caused the vast majority of the fires. Heating devices were found to have caused or were deemed likely to have caused 48 percent of fatal barn fires.
More fires occurred during colder months than during warmer months—an expected result given that so many fires result from malfunctioning heating devices. Roughly two-thirds of fatal barn fires occurred during the six-month period from October to March, and almost three times as many barn fires occurred in winter (January through March) than in summer (July through September).
No matter the cause, time of year, or location of the farm, all farmers can take simple steps to prevent barn fires and promote fire safety. To minimize the risk, AWI recommends the following: Sprinkler systems: Though sometimes cost prohibitive, this is the most effective suppression system for putting out fires.
Annual inspection by fire department: A simple step that every farm owner can take is to have the local fire department do an annual inspection. Inspections are done to ensure that electrical systems are working properly, that the barns are free of fire hazards, and that the best emergency plan is in place in case of a fire.
Fire extinguishers: Fire extinguishers should be placed strategically throughout the barn, and staff should be trained on how to use them.
Smoke detection systems: Smoke detection systems are effective in sensing fires early on and can help minimize the damage and loss of life, especially when the system automatically notifies farm owners and emergency responders.
Heat detection systems: Like smoke detection systems, heat detection systems are effective when the system quickly alerts farm owners and authorities to a fire.
Carbon monoxide detection systems: All barns should be equipped with carbon monoxide detection systems, but they are particularly important in settings where farm equipment and vehicles are stored in the same or adjacent barns. The fumes from this kind of machinery can build up and become toxic, killing farm animals and humans.
Employee training and routine fire drills: In certain situations, employees might be able to safely extinguish a fire or alert the fire department before it overwhelms the barn. Employees should receive in-depth training in how to quickly and safely respond when a fire breaks out.
In addition to these general recommendations, AWI recommends that local governments, agriculture industry trade associations, and third-party certification programs for animal products adopt NFPA 150 or a comparable fire protection standard for barns. All these entities, to some extent, have a hand in regulating the welfare of a large number of farm animals, and adopting NFPA 150 would help to avoid catastrophic barn fires in the future.
No farm is immune from the devastation that a barn fire can bring; these incidents range in size from the death of one animal at a small, family-owned farm to large-scale fires in industrial facilities that kill hundreds of thousands of animals. While barn fire prevention has clearly not been an industry priority, taking steps to encourage fire safety in barns, as well as proper inspection, maintenance, and detection systems in barns, could curb the rate of barn fires and reduce the amount of animal suffering due to these fires immensely.